I often write about “systems” in hockey, and in doing so, imply that every team uses them. I do that, because, well, they do. Sort of.
Not all teams use systems in the same way. Some teams have a roster that offers them the luxury of using “guidelines” for certain players and certain lines.
Systems confine players to set paths on the ice, which means that while you might be moving a player not smart enough to move himself into the right position, you may also be limiting your more talented players from being able to make reads and plays that can turn the tide of a game in your favor.
What makes sense then, is being open to a little deviation from the plan by allowing your talent to use their instincts. Not everyone, mind you – just your true talent.
I’m actually a big fan of varying the systems throughout your lineup based on the tools you have to work with, because it doesn’t allow your opponent to figure out what you’re doing and beat the same pattern consistently. If you have a crazy fast checking line you may want them to forecheck in a 2-1-2, where a slower line might be best sagging in a 1-2-2. As long as you keep the same foundation in the d-zone, particularly with breakouts, pairing talent with proper direction can be a killer combo.
If you want your d-men to play soft in the d-zone when your opponent has solid possession, but you’ve got a particularly quick d-man who can cause turnovers with aggressiveness, you want to let him do that. You want to utilize his tools, which is why today’s (good) coaches make exceptions for certain guys, as long as they’re able to recover when it doesn’t go as planned. (Think about being an offensive player against a passive team. You tend to get comfortable. Then one shift one guy, coming quicker than you expected, doesn’t pull up where others have been. It’s disorienting.)
And so it goes: ”Yes we’re in a 1-2-2, but I won’t bench you if you can make a read and pinch down as F2.” You come to trust the guys who make a difference, and you set them free.
I have a horrible, horrible confession before we move further: I had never read Ken Dryden’s famous “The Game” until this past weekend (and my god, it’s so good). Don’t dwell on that for too long, it’s super embarrassing. The point is, I have six thousand million passages underlined to write more about in the future, and one to start with today.
Dryden talked about Scotty Bowman and “systems” and how the Canadiens played. Obviously the game has changed a great deal since that era, but the underlying premise remains the same.
“Not long ago, I asked him [Bowman] his most important job as coach. He sat quiet for a moment, his face unfurrowed and blank, thinking, then said simply “To get the right players on the ice.” In an age of “systems” and “concepts” and fervid self-promotion, his answer may seem a little unsatisfying; but though misleadingly simple, it is how he coaches. No one has ever heard of a “Bowman system” as they have a “Shero system.” Fred Shero’s Flyers, a good but limited team, needed a system. To be effective, they needed to play just one way, and to play that so well they could overcome any team. Bowman’s team is different. Immensely talented, immensely varied, it is a team literally good enough to play, and win, any style of game. For it, a system would be too confining, robbing the team of its unique feature–its flexibility. Further, Bowman understands, as Shero did, that the flip side of winning with a system is losing by that system. So Bowman, a pragmatist with the tools any pragmatist would envy, coaches with what he calls a “plan.”
It starts with speed. It is the essence of the Canadiens’ game “fire-wagon hockey” someone once called it–and Bowman understands speed. He knows that speed is disorienting, making a player feel like an old man in a thirty-year-old’s world. It robs an opponent of coordination and control, stripping away skills, breaking down systems, making even the simplest tasks seem difficult. He knows that with Lafleur, Lemaire, Shutt, Lapointe, Gainey, and others, speed is an edge we have on everyone else; so Bowman hones that edge and uses it.”
To me, there are few greater coaching sins than taking over a team and forcing it into a system you like if it doesn’t fit the roster, and doing that is so, so common in hockey. The initial sin is on the part of the GM who hires a guy who prefers a system that doesn’t fit the guys he acquired.
All coaches should evaluate their roster and figure out how to best use it. Find a square hole for the square peg; don’t try to jam it in the triangular one.
What Dryden is talking about, and what Bowman was doing, is precisely that. If Bowman were to take the talent he had and ask them to play the 1-2-2, teams would’ve sent him thank you cards for keeping the game manageable. From there it would be ”Here’s how we’ll attack the way they play.”
In today’s hockey, every team plays some form of a system, but top talents will often be pulled aside and told some version of “everyone on this team is wearing metaphorical shock collars and has an electric fence around them. We’ve turned yours off. Don’t feel limited, just be smart.”
To me, that’s good coaching. You can’t simply lock players into bubble hockey tracks and think those paths are going to be the best way to use every player equally. There needs to be order, and there needs to be a “plan,” but you’ve got to be savvy in finding how to best utilize your team’s strengths.